Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Two @ MOMA

Fun times to be had these days at MOMA (well, apparently not for these people).  On a recent visit, my museum-going companion and I only took in two of the current shows (no William Kentridge or Tim Burton), but it was still a fully satisfying art meal.  The Cartier-Bresson retrospective is one of those shows you could spend hours, days in.  There are hundreds and hundreds of great photographs, arranged variously by theme, period, and location.  Though the sequence is somewhat hard to follow and seems more-or-less arbitrary, seeing the range of work C-B undertook in his long career, photographing everything from Ganhdi's funeral pyre to photos of the day-to-day operations of a bank for a corporate annual report, is a revelation in any order.  His compositions are often surprising; they can seem casual or even challengingly avant-garde, but somehow always right.  And there's a sense, present in all the work - even the bank photos - of lost worlds: people, things, and ways of life that will never be seen again.

While the Cartier-Bresson retro can lull the viewer into a state of blissful contemplation, Marina Abramovic's work is more likely to jar, provoke, stimulate.  While it's in the nature of retrospectives to crowd together works that were originally shown singly or in small groups, there's something particularly strange (and surely challenging for the curators) about doing this with mostly performance-based work.  The preponderance of videos of past performances and live recreations/restagings means that the show is a kind of thrill-a-minute, performance art funhouse, with surprises (sometimes of the naked flesh variety) around every turn (I'm sure my friend J.P. would love the skeleton-themed room, featuring an ongoing performance of Nude with Skeleton).

Coming across the by-now well-documented title piece of the exhibition, The Artist Is Present, feels like walking into an ongoing "media event", the set of a particularly spare one-on-one talk show, or at least a photo shoot.  The space with Abramovic's table is flooded with light from four sides, creating a sort of overlit performance art arena, as well as facilitating the ongoing photo and video documentation.  I found that watching my fellow "spectators", standing or seated around the "squared circle" as at a boxing or wrestling (or chess?) match, was as interesting as what was or was not going on with the artist and her current stare-down challenger/collaborator.  It also reminded me of Cartier-Bresson's technique, of which there were many examples on display at MOMA, of documenting an event, whether a baseball game or a coronation, by photographing the faces of the spectators.

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